A Vice Provost of Listening

Universities are adding Vice Provosts, Vice Presidents, and other administrators at an alarming rate. Alarming on its own but even more so when compared to the number of tenure track lines that, once emptied via retirement or the like, are broken up into various adjunct positions. Faculty governance is great, but can’t function if you don’t have a regularly appearing faculty who feel they are a part of the university.

Although most administrative jobs could be done better and more efficiently by faculty governance, there is one that I want to make the case for here — a Vice Provost of Listening. I got the idea after hearing how often administrators and faculty turn to the idea of “what the students need” as evidence, justification, or reason for the policy they are advocating. But where are they getting this information?

I believe most people making these claims are not seeking any evidence for it, but relying on the power of the claim — “doing it for the people” is hard to refute for a lot of reasons. But those who do seek out data only have exit surveys and graduation data, completed when students are forward looking and very pleased to be nearly finished with university. They are not terribly interested in investing the time and energy in imagining the place they are about to leave forever being better. They have a future to craft.

A Vice Provost of Listening would set up times and places where students could come and talk about the issues and problems facing them right then and right there. The role of the Vice Provost, and her staff, would be to take careful notes, record the session in various ways, and archive the things students say. Their role is to facilitate, not engage, not direct, but to let the conversation go in the ways that the participants want it to.

Given some time, a nice collection of student utterances will be available as a resource for discussions about what students need. This could be great, but then there’s the problem of interpretation.

The office of Listening should also provide a variety of heuristic norms and hermeneutic training in how to really listen to what the students are saying. To take what they offer at face value, without consideration of the context would miss what the students are trying to say. Of course, any data can be bent toward one end or another. This is why a variety of interpretive frames should be made available and explained to those who want to use this information.

Finally, wouldn’t it be great to have video confessionals, as per Real World or other reality shows where, due to the low cost of digital video, students could come into a space and record their thoughts for the Vice Provost’s office? Or they could upload audio and video from their phone, from an app designed for this purpose? Depending on how they say it can be used, the office could create daily or weekly podcasts of comments to give a campus-wide “temperature” of recent events, courses, or policies, which might help others feel safe and confident in expressing their opinion, whether it was in the majority or not.

Too often our best ideas and best information is kept from us because the students are concerned that criticism will impact their funding or grade. The Vice Provost of Listening office might be a way to indicate these fears are unfounded, and that there is someone at the university who is ready to listen, and only listen, to whatever concerns the student body.